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In Christian tradition the Churching of Women is the ceremony wherein a blessing is given to mothers after recovery from childbirth. The ceremony includes thanksgiving for the woman's survival of childbirth, and is performed even when the child is stillborn, or has died unbaptized.
Although the ceremony itself contains no elements of ritual purification, it was related to Jewish practice as noted in Leviticus 12:2-8, where women were purified after giving birth. In light of the New Testament, the Christian ritual draws on the imagery and symbolism of the Purification of the Virgin Luke 2:22-40. Although some Christian traditions consider her to have borne Christ without incurring impurity, she went to the Temple in Jerusalem to fulfill the requirements of the Law of Moses.
At one time the rite was practiced in both the Eastern and the Western churches. The custom is first mentioned in the pseudo-Nicene Arabic canons. The religious ceremony has largely fallen out of practice in the West, but continues to remain in some of the Eastern Churches.
The custom of blessing a woman after childbirth recalls the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary mentioned in Luke 2:22. The Jewish practice was based on Leviticus 12:1-8, which specified the ceremonial rite to be performed in order to restore ritual purity. It was believed that a woman becomes ritually unclean by giving birth, due to the presence of blood and/or other fluids at birth. This was part of ceremonial, rather than moral law.
Natalie Knödel noted that the idea that a woman who has recently given birth is to be set apart and then re-introduced into religious and social life by means of a special rite is not a specifically Western, let alone Christian, idea. Such rites are found in a number of cultures. All things having to do with birth and death are understood as somehow sacred. Paul V. Marshall suggests that in an agricultural society this could have been a simple means of protecting a new mother from resuming work too soon after giving birth.
Toward the middle of the first millennium adult baptism and baptismal formation declined. Infant mortality was high and baptizing a child became important. This often meant that the mother could not attend the baptism, since she was often still recuperating from birth. The time of recuperation, called “lying in”, lasted from two to six weeks, and was often a welcome time of rest for women. During the lying in, women were exempt from attending Mass on Sundays and from fasting. Since they had missed the baptism which generally included a blessing for the parents, when new mothers returned to church for Mass a ritual of welcome and blessing developed.
The rite became the subject of a good deal of misunderstanding as many commentators, in describing its scriptural antecedents, did not explain clearly the concept of "ritual purity" nor distinguish it from common practice. As a blessing given to mothers after recovery from childbirth, it is not a precept, but a pious and praiseworthy custom, dating from the early Christian ages. Pope Gregory as early as the 6th Century protested any notion that defilement was incurred by childbirth. David Cressy points out that the ceremony acknowledged the woman's labours and the perils of childbirth. As the conclusion of a month of privilege after childbirth, women looked forward to churching as a social occasion, and a time to celebrate with her friends. For men it marked the end of a month during which they had to take care of the domestic affairs, commonly referred to as the "gander month". In thirteenth century France the rite focused on the woman's role as wife and mother.
The Second Plenary Council of Baltimore held in October, 1866, noted that churching after child-birth had been generally neglected in the United States, and was to be insisted upon, and prohibited the practice of churching in places in which Mass is not celebrated.
In the West
The custom, referred to in many places as the “Churching of Women” was retained in the Church until very recent times. The official title of the Rite was actually Benedictio mulieris post partum (the blessing of women after giving birth), and focused on blessing and thanksgiving. The rite was largely discontinued in the 1960s in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. The Book of Blessings published in 1984 contains a now seldom used “Blessing of a Woman after Childbirth” but it is significantly altered from the old rite in use until about 1965. The current baptismal rite (which also incorporates a blessing of the father) contains a blessing for the mother but the older rite is a more single and special blessing.
The concluding prayer reads, Almighty, everlasting God, through the delivery of the blessed Virgin Mary, Thou hast turned into joy the pains of the faithful in childbirth; look mercifully upon this Thy handmaid, coming in gladness to Thy temple to offer up her thanks: and grant that after this life, by the merits and intercession of the same blessed Mary, she may merit to arrive, together with her offspring, at the joys of everlasting happiness. Through Christ our Lord.
The "Order for the Blessing of a Mother after Childbirth" is still used, primarily for those mothers who were unable to attend the baptism, and is not necessarily held in a church. It may be imparted by a priest, deacon or authorized lay minister.
The rite of the "Churching of Women" is still offered in the Anglican Communion. In the Episcopal Church, the "Churching of Women" is a liturgy for the purification or "churching" of women after childbirth, together with the presentation in church of the child. The 1979 BCP, avoiding any hint of ritual impurity, replaces the older rite with "A Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child." The rite is to take place within the Sunday liturgy, after the intercessions, soon after the birth or adoption. In this service, parents and other family members come to the church with the newly born or adopted child "to be welcomed by the congregation and to give thanks to Almighty God" (BCP, p. 439).
|This section may be confusing or unclear to readers. (April 2015)|
Custom differs, but the usual date of churching was the fortieth day after confinement (or giving birth), in accordance with the Biblical date and Jewish practice. The Purification of Mary and the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple are commemorated forty days after Christmas.
The service included in the English prayer-book dates only from the Middle Ages. While the churching was normally performed by a priest in the parish church there were exceptions of women being churched at home.
Prior to the Reformation, according to the rubric the woman was to occupy the "convenient place" near the church door. In the first prayer book of Edward VI, she was to be "nigh unto the quire door". In the second of his books, she was to be "nigh unto the place where the Table (or altar) standeth". Bishop Wren's orders for the diocese of Norwich in 1636 were that women to be churched would come and kneel at a side near the Communion table outside the rail, being veiled according to custom, and not covered with a hat. In some parishes there was a special pew known as the "churching seat". Conducting the ritual inside the church rather than on the porch is an outward sign that ritual impurity of a childbearing woman was no longer presumed.
Churchings were formerly registered in some parishes. In Herefordshire it was not considered proper for the husband to appear in church at the service, or to sit with his wife in the same pew. The words in the rubric requiring the woman to come "decently apparelled", refer to the times when it was thought unbecoming for a woman to come to the service with the elaborate head-dress then the fashion. A veil was usually worn. In some parishes a special veil was provided by the church, for an inventory of goods belonging to St Benets, Gracechurch Street, in 1560, includes "a churching cloth, fringed, white damask."
In pre-Reformation days, it was the custom in Catholic England for women to carry lighted tapers when being churched, an allusion to the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin (February 2), and also celebrated as Candlemas, the day chosen by the Roman Catholic Church for the blessing of the candles for the whole year. At her churching, a woman was expected to make some offering to the church, such as the chrisom or alb placed on the child at its christening.
Augustine Schulte described the ceremony in the early twentieth century: The mother, kneels in the vestibule, or within the church, carrying a lighted candle. The priest, vested in surplice and white stole, sprinkles her with holy water in the form of a cross. Having recited Psalm 24, "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof", he offers her the left extremity of the stole and leads her into the church, saying: "Enter thou into the temple of God, adore the Son of the Blessed Virgin Mary who has given thee fruitfulness of offspring." She advances to one of the altars and kneels before it, whilst the priest, turned towards her, recites the appropriate blessing, and then, having sprinkled her again with holy water in the form of the cross, dismisses her, saying: "The peace and blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, descend upon thee, and remain forever. Amen."  The fact that the priest goes to meet her and escort her into the church is in itself a mark of respect for the mother.
It was formerly regarded as unwise for a woman to leave her house to go out at all after confinement until she went to be churched. In the Catholic Church in the United Kingdom and Ireland, new mothers who had yet to be churched were regarded as attractive to the fairies, and so in danger of being kidnapped by them. However, the origin of the church ritual is unrelated to these later local superstitions, which accrued to it.
In the East
In the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches of the Byzantine Rite, many jurisdictions still observe the tradition of the woman coming to church on the 40th day after childbirth for special blessings. For forty days a new mother remains at home to recuperate and to care for her child. However, if the child has not survived, the woman still remains at home to heal physically and emotionally. During the time of her confinement, the woman does not normally receive Holy Communion, unless she is in danger of death. As the service is practiced in the Byzantine Rite, it involves both the blessing of the mother and the presentation of the child to God. The churching should be distinguished from two other brief rites that take place at childbirth: the Prayers on the First Day After Childbirth, and the Naming of the Child on the Eighth Day. These usually take place in the home. In some traditions, it is customary to baptize the child on the eighth day, following the example of the Old Testament rite of bris or circumcision of boys. In that case, the naming of the child would take place in the temple (church building); however, the mother would not attend, the child being presented by its godparents.
Churching of the Woman
On the fortieth day after childbirth, the mother is brought to the temple to be churched; that is to say, to receive a blessing as she begins attending church and receiving the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments) once again. The child (if it has survived) is brought by the mother, who has already been cleansed and washed, accompanied by the intended sponsors (Godparents) who will stand at the child's Baptism. They all stand together in the narthex (the entranceway) before the doors of the nave of the temple, facing east. The priest blesses them and says prayers for the woman and the child, giving thanks for their wellbeing and asking God's grace and blessings upon them.
Churching of the Child
Then, if the infant has already been baptized, he performs the churching of the child; if not, he does the churching immediately after the baptism.
Taking up the child, the priest lifts it up, making the Sign of the Cross with the child before the doors of the temple, saying: "The servant of God (Name) is churched, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."
He then carries the child into the center of the nave, as he says, "I will go into Thy House. I will worship toward Thy Holy Temple in fear of Thee." Stopping in the center, he says, "The servant of God (Name) is churched, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. In the midst of the congregation I will sing praises unto Thee."
He then walks up to the iconostasis, and stopping in front of the Holy Doors, he says, "The servant of God (Name) is churched, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."
He then carries the baby into the sanctuary and around the back of the Holy Table (altar) and out again onto the soleas.
- Pope, Charles. "Lost Liturgies File: The Churching of Women", Archdiocese of Washington
- Knödel, Natalie. "The Thanksgiving of Women after Childbirth, commonly called The Churching of Women", University of Durham. 1995
- Marshall, Paul V., Prayer Book Parallels. The public services of the Church arranged for comparative study, New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1989
- Kasten, Patricia. "Why women stayed away from church after a birth", Catholic News Service, February 1, 2015
- Schulte, Augustin Joseph. "Churching of Women." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 7 Apr. 2013
- Cressy, David. "Purification, Thanksgiving and the Churching of Women in Post-Reformation England", Past and Present, No. 141, 1993
- Reider, Paula M. On the Purification of Women: Churching in Northern France (1100 -1500), Palgrave Macmillan, 2006
- Fanning, William. "Plenary Councils of Baltimore." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 7 Apr. 2013
- McNamara, Edward. "Churching After Childbirth", Zenit, 26 July 2011
- "Churching of Women", Saint Benet's Kentish Town
- "Churching of Women", The Episcopal Church
- "Rituale Romanun", Canons Regular of S. John Cantius
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- A History of Women's Bodies, Edward Shorter, Penguin, New York, 1982